Unsung education heroes of the lockdown for children in care

Calvin Kipling
Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Whilst school was suspended during the COVID-19 lockdown, most children experienced some version of “home-school” arrangement to keep them engaged with school work.

Looked-after children were encouraged by the government to attend school, as were many other so-called “vulnerable” children. The reality was that the majority of children in care did not attend and instead stayed at home to be cared for and educated by their foster carers.

The government message of 'stay home, protect the NHS, save lives' really cut through and foster carers and social workers needed to make a judgment about whether children would be better served in school or at home. For some, school was already a hostile environment where they weren’t made to feel that welcome; a reason to stay at home was a relief.

School is 25 hours per week of formal education. The model of this has been pretty consistent since the end of the monitorial system. It doesn’t work for everyone. Much like the effort of trying to force square pegs into the institutional round holes, it isn’t just tiring for those doing the hammering, it damages the square pegs too.

The academic progress data for looked-after children placed with foster carers shows that the children make significantly more progress than those in residential settings and those on the edge of care. This is often attributed to consistent care, improved relationships and stability of placement. The children climb Maslow’s pyramid to educational achievement. Foster carers’ impact with “informal” education should not be over looked. It is education nonetheless, and for children with traumatic starts to life it is much more appropriate than a formal setting.

During the pandemic, virtual school headteachers have witnessed improved relationships, reduced anxiety and better learning engagement with their cohorts. They dispute the notion of a uniform “gap” between “vulnerable” children and their more advantaged peers. Improved relationships with foster carers and consistent focussed one-to-one time is better than most schools’ are resourced to offer in a normal period.

The truth is that the gap is going to be uneven, some children will have progressed more from being away from a formal setting.

We also need a more rounded view of education that embraces more complex and diverse arrangements that are not seen as “lacking aspiration” but empowering the young person to engage with their learning safely. The “high expectations and aspirations” educational jargon that make it sound like you mean business but manifest themselves as intolerant and lacking empathy, already exclude the most “vulnerable” and mask the failure to address the real issues.

The failure of this method can be seen in a prison population disproportionately filled with the care-experienced square pegs that it has damaged trying to make them fit. Those high expectations and aspirations just weren’t sufficient on their own.

If we are serious about educating our children in care, then we need to place greater value on our unsung educators: include our foster carers in the planning of educational outcomes in a meaningful way. We need to place relationship building before a rush to formal education and plan moves of placement more carefully with this in mind. It is vital that we invest in our foster carers and elevate their status, with or without a pandemic.

Calvin Kipling is virtual school headteacher in Darlington and communications lead for the National Association of Virtual School Headteachers


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